One of four new mining exploration permits, advertised publicly this week, is within the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary map, coordinates reveal, sparking concern among activists and community members about the strength of the forest’s recently-acquired protected status.
In the first public tender of fresh exploration licenses since its creation in 2013, the Ministry for Mines and Energy (MoME) this week called for expressions of interest to prospect for minerals, primarily gold and copper, in four areas covering a total of 552 square kilometres.
According to GPS waypoints cited in the accompanying documentation, one of the concessions - covering 94 square kilometres in Kampong Thom province’s Sandan district and Kratie province’s Sambour district - sits within the southern end of the 432,000 hectare sanctuary.
The sanctuary covers the bulk, but not all of, the Prey Lang forest, the largest lowland evergreen forest left in South East Asia, which was belatedly given protected status last May after years of efforts by activists and community members to protect the area from rampant logging and encroachment.
Marcus Hardtke, a long time anti-logging activist who has worked extensively in the Prey Lang area, said any moves towards mining within its boundaries would be a blow for the forest, which “shows dry forest with patches of evergreen”.
“This is another example of the government sabotaging its own policies and makes one wonder about their real commitment to protect all of these areas,” Hardtke said.
“It is nice drawing lines on a map but if there is no change in policy and extraction continues what is the point?”
Contacted this week, officials noted that the permits were only for exploration and would be subject to a rigorous vetting process which did not automatically lead to mining licenses.
The spokesman for the MoME, Meng Saktheara, said the new Prey Lang wildlife sanctuary did not form part of the ministry’s initial assessment for the permits, which was only based upon the previous royally decreed protected areas.
However, Saktheara said the public tender process was designed to be transparent, inclusive and rigorous. He noted that even if commercially viable deposits were found, the company would not automatically get a mining license.
“This is exactly the reason why we publish this publicly, hoping that if anyone has concerns about any particular issue they can raise that with us,” Saktheara said.
Saktheara conceded that open cut mining would devastate the area but said deposits deep underground may present an opportunity for extraction without significant disturbance on the surface.
Minister of Environment Say Sam Al, whose ministry is responsible for protected areas, also noted the permits were only for conducting surveys.
“[At the] assessing stage they do not need a full EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment”] as they only need to drill holes, but to go ahead or not they would need a complete EIA that includes political, social and economic considerations,” Sam Al said, via WhatsApp messenger.
The sites recently advertised by the MoME - which include two that straddle Kratie and Mondulkiri provinces, and one in Kampot province - had previously been explored by companies though their permits were cancelled due to a lack of activity, according to Saktheara.
The region has also long been a hotspot for small-scale gold mining, also known as “artisanal mining” by villagers, which is considered illegal.
Sadan district villager Hoeun Sopheap, a member of the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN), a collection of villagers living around the forest who work to protect the environment, said he was worried any large companies granted new prospecting rights would muscle out villagers.
“The small-scale family operations lose, while the environment, forest and water sources for the community are damaged,” Sopheap said.
Khai Vanda, 26, a villager from Sambour district and a member of the PLCN, said he had previously worked for a Chinese company in Boeung Char commune, which left about a year ago after three years of mining gold.
His experience, he said, left him with concerns about Prey Lang’s protection if significant gold deposits were uncovered by a company.
“They normally dig wherever they find gold without thinking of the effect,” said Vanda, adding mining operations often honed in on valuable timber too. “They log as much as they can, if they really come to mine here it will destroy the forest more.”